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Coalition of SC agencies announces plan to reduce service member suicides

Published: Sep. 22, 2021 at 3:45 PM EDT|Updated: Sep. 22, 2021 at 7:16 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - A recently formed coalition of South Carolina state agencies is working on implementing a plan they hope will eliminate suicides among former and active service members and their families.

As part of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Governor’s Challenge to Prevent Suicide Among Service Members, Veterans, and their Families, the group presented their three initiatives to the Governor and other coalition members.

In 2019, 123 veterans died by suicide in South Carolina, according to the Dept. of Veteran’s Affairs.

According to the VA, this is not significantly different from the national veteran suicide rate but is significantly higher than the general population suicide rate.

To combat this, the coalition is looking to first identify all former and active service members and their families in South Carolina through universal screening at healthcare facilities.

Jennifer Butler, the Program Director for SCDMH Office of Suicide Prevention, said while people are asked in these locations if they are veterans, oftentimes people who have served don’t identify as a veteran.

She also said that there is currently not an accurate count of how many active and former and part-time service members and their families live in the Palmetto State.

“Changing the question saying, ‘have you served?’ and ‘are you a family member of someone who served?’ makes sure we don’t leave anyone behind,” Butler said. “We are a strong military state, we have every military installation represented, we have a number of veterans in our state and family members.”

Butler explained that if this question is more common and followed by a professional asking someone if they are experiencing suicidal thoughts, lives can be saved.

“We want all these healthcare systems asking it of everyone...but specifically we need to work on increasing the resilience and access of that population,” Butler said.

The second step laid out by the coalition is easing a service member’s transition back to full-time civilian life, which mental health experts say is a potentially very vulnerable period, and increasing service member’s access to resources.

The coalition has also been training former service members to serve as guides for fellow veterans as they transition to civilian life through the Palmetto Pathfinder Program.

Their third step is to increase safety surrounding tools people may use to harm themselves.

On Wednesday, Butler was also recognized for her work in preventing suicides in South Carolina by receiving the Order of the Silver Crescent from Governor Henry McMaster.

Butler says her ultimate goal is to bring the rate of suicides among South Carolina service members to zero.

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